Kyle Busch's first Sprint Cup

NASCAR

You may not think much of NASCAR’s ‘Chase for the Cup’ play-off system but it produced an excellent championship duel in the closing laps of last weekend’s Sprint Cup season finale at Homestead. Defending NASCAR champion Kevin Harvick chased Kyle Busch all the way to the chequered flag but couldn’t get close enough to challenge Busch, who took his first Sprint Cup championship in his 11th year in NASCAR’s premier series.

Touted for many years as one of NASCAR’s most talented drivers Busch, known as ‘Rowdy’, has won more than 150 NASCAR races over the past decade in Sprint Cup, the second division Xfinity series and third division Truck series. Even so, Kyle has never finished better than fourth in the Sprint Cup and until last Sunday he had never won a Chase round.

But he quickly emerged as the man to beat at Homestead, eventually leading more laps than anyone else and pulling away from the final restart to beat Harvick by four seconds. Busch’s championship was remarkable because he missed eleven races at the beginning of the year after crashing at Daytona in February, breaking a leg and foot. Back in the cockpit by May, Kyle was immediately competitive and went on to win five races and lead 736 laps as he took Joe Gibbs Racing’s fourth championship and first in 10 years.

Gibbs’ four-car team is the factory Toyota operation and this is the manufacturer’s first Cup championship, so it was particularly gratifying for the team and TRD (Toyota Racing Development) in California, where the engines are built. Gibbs’ Toyotas won more races than anyone this year – 14 of 36. Both Busch and Matt Kenseth won five races while Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards took two wins apiece.

“It’s unbelievable!” Busch grinned in victory lane. “It’s the dream of a lifetime come true. I can’t believe it with everything that’s happened this year and all the things that I and my wife and family and everybody who’s close to me went through.

“The rehab and getting back and getting ready was the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through. I had one special driver in Tony Stewart come a see me eight months ago. That was a big help to me. I wanted to come back from the rehab and be stronger than ever and that’s what happened. I don’t know what to say. This is awesome! Again, it’s a dream come true.”

Busch’s Daytona crash:

Runner-up Harvick was the man to beat all year and would have won the championship for the second year in a row if any kind of conventional, season-long scoring system was in use. Harvick has established himself as the lead driver at Stewart/Haas Racing’s four-car team of Chevrolets. This year he won three races and took no fewer than 13 second places. He also led 2294 laps, almost twice as many as anyone else, and 157 more than the record he set last year.

“We’ve had a great couple of years and I’m looking forward to next year,” Harvick remarked. “It’s great to be able to run like this and race for the win but I’ve learned not to get greedy. Last year everything went our way and it didn’t this year. Congratulations to the #18 team, they’ve done a great job this year.”

Using NASCAR’s old point system Harvick would have won this year’s championship with 1321 points. Penske drivers Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski would have finished second and third with 1299 and 1217 points, followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr (1198), Martin Truex (1165), Jimmie Johnson (1155), Denny Hamlin (1117) and Jeff Gordon (1110). Thanks to missing 11 races, Busch would have finished out of the top 20.

But under the Chase format Gordon and Truex finished third and fourth in points this year. Gordon scored the 93rd and final win of his career at Martinsville last month and was lauded by everyone last weekend as his 23 years racing Cup cars came to an end. I’ve written an appreciation of Jeff’s career for the next issue of the magazine.

Fourth-placed Truex enjoyed a strong season with Barney Visser’s one-car team. After an up and down career Truex finally made his mark this year as he was the only single-car team who was able to run repeatedly with the big multi-car teams fielded by Gibbs, Hendrick, Stewart/Haas and Penske.

And of course, F1 world champion Lewis Hamilton was at Homestead as a spectator. Hamilton spent some time with Jeff Gordon and was invited to watch the race from Gordon’s scoring stand in a seat normally occupied by Rick Hendrick. Hamilton clearly enjoyed himself and I’m sure he found the experience eye-opening and educational.

Pitstop strategy in NASCAR is ever-changing, depending on how the yellows fall and how the track changes as the long races wear on. It takes a lot of thinking on your feet and split-second decisions about when to stop, how many tyres to change and what set-up details to fiddle with.

Lewis’s time at Homestead surely provided plenty of grist for his mill and it will be interesting to see if Mercedes – or any other Formula 1 team – can learn any lessons from the many things Lewis saw and heard last weekend.

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